Nov 1, 2008

Down at Philz Coffee on 24th Street. Saturday morning. A homeless man hiding under a blanket, on a torn-up leather sofa. Just the man’s face: scared, dreary-eyed. He looks like a GI on the cover of a winter issue of Life in 1944. Next to to him, a shin-high, white short-haired dog licks the floor. In among the hiss and belch of the coffee-maker and the chatter, Philz's got his music going: violins, accordions, a Lebanese singer. Ya-habbibi. I’m 13 again. I'm in the backseat of a taxi running down the bluffs above Ababa. At the far end of a life later I’m here, a face in someone else's memory of magazine photos. The neighborhood is lining up at the counter. Tattooed, dread-locked kids, mostly.

Phil is at the maker, dealing out lattes and medical advice: coffee cures all. No money, drink coffee. No boyfriend, drink coffee. It will give you the self you’ve been missing, it'll get you back on the road to success. He spots me, takes a break. He’s wearing blue jeans; button-down, striped shirt; a detective’s harrow brimmed hat. Like they wear in Queens. He’s small but broad shouldered. Fearless body language. You wouldn’t want to fight him unless you had to. His employees know better. When he’s not behind the counter he’s in what was once a freezer, now his office, big enough for two and a TV with four different camera views of the café. He watches his employees carefully. He sees everything. Once he saw me do him good turn. He never forgets a good turn.

I ask him who he’s voting for. The answer is a smile, a slinty-eyed, souky smile. He shakes his head. It’s all charm, no answers. It’s in his blood not to say. You never know who might be listening. And of course it’s not good business to say such things in public. Phil’s family got here in the early 1900s, from the West Bank. When did he get here? I don’t know. He doesn't say. But a thick accent. He knows all the Palestinians in the neighhood, including Mustafa and his brother over at B & W garage. There a lot of small businesses around the city run by Palestinians. The DA courts them closely at reelection time.

I press him on his political choice. He shakes his head. I berate him a little. Why be coy? What’s to figure out? He leans forward; he’s going to tell me the truth. I lean in. “Do you see this girl over here with the tattoos on the back of her leg?" He flicks his head. I see her. She’s fat-calved and up all night, and not a good night at that. She’s trying to drink the coffee, get back up to the road to success, but she can barely hold the cup. She looks like one of these Amy Winehouses not wanting to go back to rehab.

"She's famous."

"But who you voting for?" I ask again. He shakes his head. "Oh then you must be voting for McCain."

He leans in again. The smile is gone. You don't want to fool with Phil now. "You don't know who I'm voting for. I could be voting for Obama. But I'm worried about what will happen to him. You know what I'm talking about."

Yes, of course, I'm thinking. Of course. I know what you're talking about.

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